Friday, June 20, 2008

Update on what I'm reading... (part 2)

I have started reading four new books.

How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now by James L. Kugel

No, I've not become religious again (God forbid!). But regardless of any religious sentiment I might have, I have for some time had a strong curiousity to establish in my mind exactly how I should regard all the various biblical stories that I learned as a child. Of course, I have long since stopped believing in miracles but if one thinks about it for a moment, there's a lot more to it than that. Are the non-miraculous events described true? Did the people exist? Many such questions come to mind. I was interested to know what the answers of modern biblical scholars were to such questions. Fortunately, Kugel's book is an excellent source in this regard, covering both the ancient and modern understanding of the Scripture. For example, Kugel names the four assumptions of the "ancient interpreters" (these are the original Rabbinic and Christian interpreters of the Bible from about the 3rd Century BCE and on, that the followers of Judaism and Christianity follow to this day.
  1. The Bible is a fundamentally cryptic text filled with hidden meanings.
  2. The Bible is book of timeless lessons to be applied to any age.
  3. The Bible contains no contradictions of mistakes. In order to resolve any seeming contradictions see point 1.
  4. The Bible is a divinely given text.
(see pages 14-16 of Kugel's book for the four assumptions)
On the other hand modern scholars essentially follow Baruch Spinoza's recommendations for how to study the Scriptures. Spinoza emphasizes that Scripture is to be understood by Scripture alone, that to understand Scripture we must understand the peculiarities of its own language, that it means what it says even when it disagrees with our own conceptions. In addition Spinoza started focusing on how the books were put together and the process of their transmission, and openly admitted that it contains contradictions. I'm now on page 376 and very much enjoying it.

100 Billion Suns by Rudolf Kippenhahn

I have recently decided that my knowledge of astronomy and cosmology is completely inadequate. I used to know a lot more particularly around grade school time. However, since then I have not kept up with the latest developments in the field and I find may of the popular mentions more confusing than helpful. My initial investigations on the web led to Evidence for the Big Bang essay, a fairly detailed review of the meaning of and arguments for the Big Bang theory. That's where I came across a recommendation for Kippenhahn's German language book Kosmologie für die Westentasche (trans. Cosmology for the Vest Pocket) by the same author but it was difficult to find, and I happen to come across the above English language book in a used bookstore. I'm around the first two chapters. It seems a little technical for a book aimed at laymen but I like it like that. I'm also reading the following:

Principles of Physical Cosmology by P. J. E. Peebles

As I mentioned, I'm interested in Cosmology. I was particularly interested in understanding if popular pronouncements about the Big Bang theory are a correct identification of the underlying science. For example, here's one from a recent editorial by Dinesh D'Souza (hat-tip Noodlefood):
Modern science has discovered that the universe, far from existing eternally, had a beginning. Not only matter but space and time itself came into existence around 15 billion years ago in the fiery burst that scientists term the Big Bang. The laws of physics themselves originated at that point, and those laws were inoperative “before” the founding moment.
So what do actual scientist say when describing what "science has discovered" about the universe? Here Peebles book, a textbook for advance undergraduate and graduate students, seems particularly helpful as already in chapter 1 he clearly contradicts D'Souza's claim and clarifies the limits of the science involved. After dicussing the "main elements of the standard world picture" he comments on page 6:
The familiar name for this picture, the "big bang" cosmological model, is unfortunate because it suggests we are identifying an event that triggered the expansion of the universe, and it may also suggest that the event was an explosion localized in space. Both are wrong. The universe we observe is inferred to be close to homogenous, with no evidence for a preferred center that might have been the site of an explosion. The standard cosmological picture deals with the universe as it is now and as we can trace its evolution back in time through an interlocking network of observation and theory...If it is found that still earlier epochs left evidence that can be analysed and used to test our ideas, then that may be incorporated in the standard model or some extension of it. If there were an instant, at a "big bang," when our universe started expanding, it is not in the cosmology as now accepted, because no one has thought of a way to adduce physical evidence that such an event really happened.
Parenthetically I'll add that some scientists are now actively trying to see if they can find evidence before the "big bang".
Unfortunately, too many people, both laymen and scientists, seem to talk and write as if science has now proven philosophy wrong and the Bible's account of creation has been confirmed. From what I've been reading, a closer examination of the science shows that the issue of the eternity of the universe remains a philosophical issue. Science can only trace back the evolution of the universe to a certain point in time -- it cannot establish that that point represents a "beginning" or a "creation event". I hope to read more in this book and gain a clearer understanding of the theories involved (particularly General Relativity).

(רבקה שרגר -- הבריחה אל החיים)Escape to Life by Rivka Shrager

This is the true story of a little girl who escapes the Nazis during World War II. My dad gave me this book as she happened to be born and lived in the same little Polish village that my dad had been born in and had lived during those terrible times. The author is that same little girl who by now is a grandmother. So far she has recounted the happy times before the war had started.

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